The Quad, China, And Maritime Domain Awareness In The Indo-Pacific
Working with like-minded is fine, but working open-mindedly is more important. The Quad’s attempt to promote Maritime Domain Awareness and reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Indo-Pacific region should involve an inclusive conversation with China.
Perhaps the most substantial development of the third Quad Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo on 24 May was the launch of the maritime security initiative, the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). In the eyes of the Quad nations, this collaboration can craft a public good that serves their shared interests and benefit smaller states in the Indo-Pacific region in the security and environmental domains. However, China tends to believe that the IPMDA is created to target itself exclusively, viewing the initiative as an avatar of “small cliques” politics. That is, certain countries are intentionally grouped to produce a shared sense of “selfness” to disconnect and alienate the third parties (the otherness).
One of the key objectives of the IPMDA is to keep track of suspicious vessels that turn off their tracking transponders for conducting illicit activities. To achieve this, the Quad will use an Automatic Identification System and radio-frequency technologies to collect commercially-available data that can be provided to potential partners. Four existing information fusion centres will be integrated and extended, which are located in India, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Though unstated, the main target of this initiative appears to be China, which America has accused of being the largest exploiter of global fishing that is responsible for 95 percent of IUU fishing in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Chinese Response
Unsurprisingly, this allegation was quickly rebutted by both Chinese government and academics. In the Regular Press Conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded that China “actively upholds the UN-centred international system” and abides by “relevant international law”. Chinese academics contend that the US is using disinformation to delegitimise China’s maritime actions in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s reactions can be understood in two aspects: one emotional and one rational. From an emotional perspective, either the state or society in China shows an aversion toward “small cliques” politics, which they think might generate an unjust binary image between the West and China. This division endows the West with a sense of superiority but exclusively categorises China as an inferior position. This dichotomy is mutually dangerous because the West may misjudge China based on who it is rather than what it did, and China may dismiss constructive criticisms from the West.
From a practical viewpoint, China worries about two real-world impacts resulting from the IPMDA. First, framing China as a threat further stains China’s international reputation, which can negatively shape how others view and behave toward China. Second, the data-sharing mechanism that the IPMDA enables has security concerns. Though at this stage, only commercial data will be shared, this mechanism is technically applicable in the political and military arena. This has the potential to undermine China’s strategic interests, particularly regarding China’s maritime militia issue.
Although the US’s accusations and China’s rebuttals both encompass a certain degree of politicised rhetoric, the statistics present that China has a poor performance in fishing activities. A report by the Congressional Research Service indicated that according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime, a non-government organisation, China was identified as the worst-scoring coastal country in IUU fishing. However, a media analysis project conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that China’s performance might not be the most notorious: among 329 verified media-reported illegal-fishing incidents in the Asian Pacific region from 1 January 2015 until 15 August 2019, persons of Chinese nationality were only involved in 19 cases, ranking fourth in the region.
The Rationale of Chinese Participation
Undeniably, China has the world’s largest fishing fleet, and so it might logically follow that they are responsible for a substantial portion of IUU fishing. However, China’s substantial maritime presence also makes them a key actor in combatting IUU fishing. China is likely to join not because it is benign or moral, but because of a demand for modernisation and a desire to improve its international image. In reality, Beijing has taken concrete steps to combat IUU fishing, such as reducing government subsidies, mandating the installation of vessel monitoring systems, providing crew and skippers’ training, and imposing fishing bans. These practices, as the FAO reported, have apparently reduced China’s catches and fishing vessels and generated a global impact. But there are problems around under-reporting and regional disputes over some Chinese measures, which require multilateral negotiations.
China has no reason to refuse a neutral invitation to jointly resolve IUU fishing, even if it comes from the Quad. “If the IPMDA is a public good, why does it exclusively target China? ” said Hu Bo, Professor for Maritime Strategy Studies at Peking University and Director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative. Indeed, working with like-minded states is normal, but tackling international problems and promoting global peace requires leaping out of the comfort zone to work open-mindedly and creatively.
If the Quad creates a public good that contributes to regional polarisation, smaller powers are unlikely to actively engage because hedging between great powers is safer for them to survive. This is evident in the case of the Solomon Islands, which has one of the data fusion centres under the IPMDA initiative but also signed a security pact with China. With an open mindset, Solomon Islands can be the middle ground to strike a dialogue between the Quad and China. From a normative lens, the Quad is wiser to facilitate conversation rather than intensify confrontation. A conversation is an antidote to preconceived ideas and can coexist with competition.
Rebecca (Yancheng) Zhang is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney majoring in International Relations and Education. She is currently undertaking an honours year writing her thesis on potential cross-strait conflict. Rebecca is a research assistant at Intellisia Institute where she writes a series of reports and commentaries on AI politics, data governance, Taiwan politics, and US-China relations. She is also a member of the CISS Youth project at the Centre for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University. Her research interests revolve around Taiwan politics, political theory, war and justice and AI and politics as well as Indo-Pacific geopolitics.
Rebecca is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.
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